Previous Posts: March 2012

More fakes at auction?

March 21 2012

Image of More fakes at auction?

Picture: TAN

This time, Greek ones (allegedly). A leading Greek collector is suing Sotheby's over two alleged fakes. According to Riah Pryor in The Art Newspaper

The collector Diamantis Diamantides, who owns the shipping firm, Marmaras Navigation, is one of the biggest buyers of Greek art. He bought Still Life Before the Acropolis [by Constantin Parthenis] from Sotheby’s, London, in 2006 and set a record price for the artist when he paid £670,100 for The Virgin and Child in the same saleroom in 2007. Both works are believed to have been consigned by the same two people, although Sotheby’s declined to disclose who they were. 

Doubts were soon raised over the authenticity of the works. Diamantides eventually lodged a complaint against the auction house and Constantine Frangos, the London-based senior director of Greek art at Sotheby’s, in February 2010, saying that they fraudulently induced him to buy forgeries. A spokesman for Sotheby’s denies this vigorously, saying: “It stands to reason that an auction house that sells billions of dollars of art a year, and relies on its reputation to secure consignments and purchasers, would not put its business at risk by knowingly selling forged works.” The spokesman adds: “We are reviewing further evidence that has been submitted concerning the authenticity of the works.” A decision on the case is expected shortly.

That Sotheby's statement was looking really convincing until the word 'knowingly' creapt in there. I doubt anyone really thinks a major auction house like Sotheby's knowingly sells fakes. The question is, how rigorously are works checked before sale? As we know from the Beltracchi case, the answer is, sometimes, not very.

The illustration above is of one of the earliest suspected recent Greek fakes, Lady in White, meant to be by Dimitrios Galanis. From TAN:

Rumours of widespread forgery began in 2008 when Bonhams rejected a work, Lady in White, by Dimitrios Galanis (1880-1966) and said “further research” on the work was needed. The sheer volume of works coming on to the market also raised suspicions, especially as the country has relatively few well known modern artists.

A sharp-eyed reader has been in touch to say that it is a copy of a well known painting by Meredith Frampton in the Tate. He says:

One wonders at Bonhams having to do further research on the piece!

That, I suppose, is because the picture wasn't 'rejected' by Bonhams quite as The Art Newspaper suggests - it had in fact been included in a sale, with an estimate of £50-70,000, and had to be withdrawn. Whoops! Here's the original catalogue entry for the picture, which, in retrospect, is hilarious, and a contender for 'Guffwatch of the Decade':

Discovered in Germany by its present owner, this stunning portrait sheds new light on Galanis’ scarcely recorded German period, making it a rare piece, extremely valuable to scholarly research. In his seminal account on the painter - the first Greek to be accepted among the European avant-garde, art historian M. Mavrommatis holds that “we might never be able to reconstruct this period in his career, unless new evidence comes to light." [...]

A startling example of fine portraiture, the painting on offer is a penetrating study in formal balance, eventually unfolding into abstract rhythmic designs in which contours and colour harmonies are mutually interdependent. The pleated curtain on the upper left is ingeniously echoed in the lower right, its greenness repeated in the tablecloth and leafage, its columnar verticality surviving in the stripes of the vase and its sculptural presence resounding in the art-deco solidity of the flower motifs. Likewise, the warm red of the wall is picked up in the sitter’s shoes and lips, while the round form of the side table is supported by a series of curvilinear themes in both the sofa and the sitter’s body. These magnificent and well-thought harmonies provide the solid framework on which Galanis would mount the focal point of his composition: the striking antithesis of brooding black and brilliant white in the centre of the painting. 

The effect of the picture is heightened immeasurably by the sitter’s commanding presence, confident stare and aristocratic posture. Devoid of any jewellery and wearing a simple, virginal dress, the sitter becomes a symbol of nobility without the glitter of high society. In this picture Galanis’ achievement is one of utter elegance and majesty, phrased by an almost musically articulate series of formal elements that weld the image and its attendant attributes into a compelling entity of idealised, eternal beauty.

What is 'columnar verticality', by the way?

'Nipples at the Met'

March 21 2012

Image of 'Nipples at the Met'

Picture: Nipples at the Met

This is what happens when art historians have too much time on their hands.

Anyone fancy a round of 'Test your Connoisseurship'?

Destination: China

March 21 2012

Look east everyone - China is now the world's biggest market for art and antiques. Last year, China had a 30% share of the world's art and antique market, ahead of the US with 29%. The UK is in third place with 22%. To give you an idea of how the UK punches above its weight in the global art market, France is in fourth place, with just 6%. 

The figures come from the annual TEFAF report into the art market. Other interesting facts include:

  • The Chinese art and antiques auction sector was the strongest growing market worldwide with a dramatic rise of 177% in 2010 and a further 64% in 2011.
  • The global art market continued to recover in 2011, increasing by 7% to €46.1 billion, an increase of 63% since the market crisis of 2009. The volume of transactions also increased by 5% to 36.8 million.
  • The driving forces behind the recovery were strong sales in the Chinese auction market and the rise of fine art sales (over decorative art).
  • The Modern and Contemporary sectors combined to account for nearly 70% of the fine art market. Both continued a strong recovery in 2011, leading them to levels in excess of the boom of 2007-2008.
  • The art market took nearly a decade to recover from the recession of the 1990s whereas the contraction in 2009 has been relatively short-lived. This is due, in part, to its increasingly global nature.

That recovered 'Van Dyck'

March 21 2012

Image of That recovered 'Van Dyck'

Picture: Telegraph

On Monday, I mentioned Poussin scholar Dr David Packwood's response to the 'Poussin' recovered in Rome by Italian police, one of 37 old masters stolen way back in 1971. Now, David has also highlighted a better illustration of the 'Van Dyck' that was also recovered in the Telegraph. As you can see from the horse's head, it ain't by Van Dyck. The 'Rubens', also illustrated in the Telegraph, is manifestly not by Rubens.

The story, which was covered around the world, presents us with an interesting insight into art historical reporting by the press, and the assessment of art by law enforcement authorities. It looks like this '£6m' cache of old masters is really a collection of pastiches and later copies, worth hardly anything. One wonders how the story ever had legs in the first place. It seems from the reporting that it stemmed from an official press release by the Italian police, and with backing from experts at Italy's Ministry of Culture. So one can hardly blame the press for running with it. Was this just a PR exercise by the Italian police, who found the pictures after they were consigned to an auction house in Rome? If so, it certainly worked, for Colonel Raffaelle Mancino of the carabinieri was able to get his message across:

'This shows we won't give up, even after 41 years.'

Incidentally, I wonder if the original owners got an inusrance payout after the theft, based on attributions to Rubens and Van Dyck. If they did, I doubt they'll want the paintings back!

'The Painter's Indiscretion'

March 20 2012

Image of 'The Painter's Indiscretion'

Picture: Bonhams

I bet Van Dyck did this. Augustus John certainly did (and worse). 'The Painter's Indiscretion' is by the Polish artist Ladislaus Bakalowicz (1833-1904), and is coming up for sale in New York at Bonhams, estimated at $6-8,000.

Wildensteins sued over missing Monet

March 20 2012

Image of Wildensteins sued over missing Monet

Picture: New York Times

The family from whom a Monet was stolen by the Nazis are suing the Wildenstein Institute, suspecting that they may know where the missing work (above) is. It was listed in Daniel Wildenstein's Monet catalogue as being in an American private collection as recently as 1996. From the New York Times:

Ginette Heilbronn Moulin, 85, the chairwoman of the Galeries Lafayette department store chain, is pursuing a claim that the Wildenstein family, an international dynasty of French art dealers, is concealing information about the stolen work. The canvas, which belonged to the Heilbronn family, vanished in 1941 after a Gestapo raid on a family bank vault.

Last summer, after Ms. Moulin filed a criminal complaint against the Wildensteins, the French authorities ordered a preliminary investigation. An anti-art-trafficking squad is sifting through World War II documents to pick up the trail of the work, “Torrent de la Creuse,” Monet’s 1889 study of the confluence of the Creuse and the Petite Creuse Rivers.

“It’s not a question of the price of the painting,” Ms. Moulin said in an interview here in her art-filled apartment. “It’s a question of a victory against the Germans and. ...” Her voice trailed off.

The Wildensteins, who have been selling art for five generations, have steadfastly denied any knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts. But Daniel Wildenstein, an Impressionist scholar who died in 2001, included it in two of his widely embraced inventories of Monet’s work. In both he listed it as being in a private collection: an anonymous owner in the first reference and an unidentified American owner in 1996.

The suspicions of Ms. Moulin and her family were aroused last year when more than 30 artworks that had been reported missing or stolen were found in a vault at the Wildenstein Institute, a nonprofit research organization the Wildensteins run from a mansion on the Right Bank. The items, most of which had vanished years earlier during the settlement of estates, were recovered in an unrelated investigation. [...]

Guy Wildenstein, the billionaire who leads the family business from New York, declined through his lawyers to comment on Ms. Moulin’s accusations. But he has contended that the institute never hid missing works, saying it simply lacked a full inventory of what was in its vault.

That's a great excuse - I must remember that.

Science 1 - Connoisseurship 0

March 20 2012

Image of Science 1 - Connoisseurship 0

Picture: Independent

A still life dismissed by experts as not being by Van Gogh has now been re-attributed thanks to an x-ray analysis of the picture beneath. Van Gogh re-used a canvas on which he had painted a scene of two wrestlers, and now, for the first time, the wrestlers have been found. From The Independent:

The wrestlers’ existence was known only from a reference in one of the Dutch master’s letters, written aged 33, just four years before his tragic death. On 22 January 1886, he wrote: “This week I painted a large thing with two nude torsos – two wrestlers.” 

There is no other painting of wrestlers. It is this painting that now confirms the still life’s authenticity. They are both on the same canvas. Van Gogh painted the still life over his wrestlers which could not be seen until now.

The still life was acquired in 1974 by the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Holland, which boasts one of the world’s largest Van Gogh collections. But the painting’s link to Van Gogh had been repeatedly dismissed over the years because it was thought to be “uncharacteristically exuberant”.

In 2003, it was finally “deattributed” on stylistic grounds and unceremoniously relegated to a back room out of public view, listed merely as “artist: anonymous”.

Stolen masterpieces recovered!

March 19 2012

Image of Stolen masterpieces recovered!

Picture: AHT

Or perhaps not? There was a flurry of excitement in the press recently when it was announced that police in Rome had recovered 37 stolen masterpieces, by, amongst others, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Poussin. However, the image used to illustrate the Van Dyck manifestly did not show a picture by Van Dyck, so I didn't get that excited. And over on Art History Today, art historian and Poussin scholar Dr David Packwood casts doubt on the 'Poussin':

A clumsy composition- and those cherubs! As I spent a lot of time in my doctorate days looking at religious paintings by NP, I think I’m qualified to pronounce on this. So the owners bought a picture they thought was by Poussin, and the thieves stole it thinking the same? My guess is an Italianate painter trying to emulate Poussin, not very successfully. Or it could be a collaboration between Gaspar Poussin- Poussin’s brother-in-law-and an Italian artist?  But the figures are too monumental for Gaspard, yet parts of the landscape recall NP.

25 years of TEFAF

March 19 2012

Video: TEFAF

This year, The European Fine Art Fair at Maastricht is 25 years old. Above is a video on the show and its history.

Auction houses selling ever more by private treaty

March 19 2012

There's an interesting snippet in the Antiques Trade Gazette showing how auction houses are conducting more and more private treaty sales. Last year, Sotheby's sold a total $4.9bn of works privately, up 7% from last year. That's 16.5% of their total sales.

The flipside of this, of course, is that an increasing number of works which appear at auction are not as 'fresh' as they might appear - freshness to market being a key driver of desirability at auction. In fact, such works are only in the auction because they have failed to sell when offered directly to clients as private treaty sales. I know of one major old master sold at auction in New York recently for $17 million (there's a clue), which had been touted around at prices of up to $50m before the sale. Not surprisingly, it generated only a single bid when it finally had its day at auction. 

Why you should always get two auction estimates

March 19 2012

Image of Why you should always get two auction estimates

Picture: Christie's

There is a very sad tale in this week's Antiques Trade Gazette, which, however you look at it, reflects badly on the antiques world. In 2006, Lord Coleridge, needing to raise some funds, asked Sotheby's to look at his heirloom, 'the Coleridge Collar' (above). The Chain was said to have been worn by every Chief Justice of the Common Pleas between 1551-1873. But Sotheby's said it was late 17th Century, not a Tudor original, and valued it at £35,000. Seeing that the Chain was worth less than he had hoped to raise, Lord Coleridge made what he described as the 'traumatic' decision to sell his Devon home, Chanter's House, where his family had lived since the 18th Century. He also included the Chain in the sale to the new owners.

But then, two years later, the new owners sold the Chain, as a Tudor original, at Christie's for £313,250 (inc. premium). Lord Coleridge, understandably miffed, decided to sue Sotheby's. But last week he effectively lost the case, and now has to pay costs of many hundreds of thousands of pounds. From the ATG:

Essentially Lord Coleridge's case was that Sotheby's had taken too little time and care in researching the chain. His legal team set out to prove this with recourse to scientific testing, analysis of manufacturing techniques and prolonged and vigorous cross-examination of witnesses. But the judge's verdict was that all this effectively added nothing to the conclusion reached by Sotheby's expert Elizabeth Mitchell during what he acknowledged was a hurried visit to the Coleridge family home to inspect the collar: namely that there was no record of the chain prior to 1714 and that there was nothing to prove that it was not of post-Restoration manufacture.

This ultimately means that a court has decided the Chain is not certainly Tudor, so where that leaves the new owners, and Christie's, I don't really know. I'm no specialist in this field, but I saw it at the 2008 sale and it seemed to me entirely genuine, and of Tudor origin.

Drilling for Leonardo - Martin Kemp's view

March 19 2012

The noted Leonardo scholar, Professor Martin Kemp, has written some penetrative insights on the results from the Leonardo drilling in Florence. And you have to say that, from the drillers' point of view, they're not good:

The search is important. It has been underway, on and off, since the late 1970s. It needs to be resolved one way or the other. Maurizio Seracini, who is leading the investigation, has the skills to pursue it. If the unfinished Battle of Anghiari - the central knot of fighting horsemen - is discovered in legible condition, it will be one of the greatest art finds of any era - much like the unearthing of Laocoon. The timing and handling of the announcement is, however, unfortunate, and is clearly driven by political, media and, I guess, financial imperatives. The mayor is pressed by critics, and Maurizio presumably needs funding to be sustained. The timing is also related to screening of the National Geographic TV programme on the search. The whole project over the years has been dogged by premature ejaculations via the press. This, as I know from the story of the portrait in vellum, is precisely how not to secure scholarly assent. I have been fed bits of somewhat garbled information by the media.

It is said that there is "proof" that Leonardo's lost Battle has been discovered. My reactions are:

1) the published data about Vasari having built a wall specifically to protect Leonardo's painting is inconclusive;

2) I have seen no evidence that the layers behind Vasari's fresco feature a continuous, flat, primed and painted surface;

3) the "manganese" pigment that has been identified in the core sample taken by the small bores is said to match that in the Mona Lisa. Manganese is a standard component in umber or burnt umber, and cannot be taken specifically to signal Leonardo;

4) the "red lacquer" in the press reports is presumably a red lake pigment - based on an organic dye. The best red lakes were expensive but were used in tempera and oil painting. They could also be used on walls with a binder;

5) it is claimed that there was no other painting in the Council Hall from its construction in 1494 until Vasari's intervention. The idea that the hugely important Council Hall would have been left with bare plaster walls during the almost 20 years of the Republic is untenable. The precise location of Leonardo's horsemen is not certain, and the pigments could well be traces of other decorations in the hall, such as heraldic shields;

6) if Vasari did wall up Leonardo's painting, what might remain? The long-term adhesion of oil paint on a wall in such circumstances is hugely questionable. We might well have only a micro-jigsaw puzzle of fragments fallen off the surface.

This all seems to undermine the confident messages coming from Florence. Meanwhile, over on the indispensable 3 Pipe Problem, we find news that a total of six holes were drilled (a planned seventh was abandoned), as well as the views of Dr Cristina Acidini, the Superintendent of the Polo Museale in Florence. She seems to be more persuaded than Kemp that the pigments found so far can certainly be linked to Leonardo. But note the final sentence of her remarks:

We are dealing with a winding road. Now it is necessary to go deeply into these initial results of the investigation and months will be required to carry out the necessary analyses. When we reach the end, there might be a disappointment. As of today, our only certainty is that there is an intervening space and that there are the same substances that Leonardo used for the Gioconda and the Saint John the is now necessary to proceed step by step, using non-invasive methods.

In other words, if you think we're going to start removing more bits of Vasari to get to the Battle of Anghiari - if it remains - think again. 

Regular readers will remember that when the drilling plan was first mooted, I was fairly relaxed about it. As Professor Kemp notes, to find even a fragment of Leonardo's lost work will be exciting. But there is something grating and unnecessarily flamboyant about the way the latest procedures and results have been announced to the world. So far, the evidence that we are dealing with a lost Leonardo is very thin. For example, it looks as if the sophisticated endoscopic cameras inserted into the supposed gap behind the Vasari can show a great deal of information, and relay easily viewable images. I suspect, therefore, that if they had spotted anything like a flat painted surface, we would know about it. There is, of course, the possibility that the best bits of footage are being kept for the National Geographic's programme - perhaps there really will be a glimpse of a hoof, or a finger.

And yet I can't shake the sense that the discovery of a few old flakes of paint, which may or may not relate to Leonardo, constitute an anticlimax for the team behind the search. For if they had found that glimpse of finger, they wouldn't need to test any paint. It would incontrovertibly be the Leonardo. In the meantime, we have beamed images to millions of people around the world which say that no matter how implausible your theory (and please let's get over this Da Vinci Code-like idea that just because Vasari wrote 'Cerca Trova' he was suggesting there was a Leonardo behind his painting) it's ok to start drilling into old masterpieces. Is art history really the winner in all this? Not yet.

Hirst, the art market, and keeping up values

March 19 2012

In The Guardian, the writer Hari Kunzru casts a thoughtful glance at Hirst values, and looks at how both dealers and institutions can help keep them up:

If I were Larry Gagosian (usually cited in power lists as the contemporary art world's most important player) and I wanted to help my top client shore up the value of a body of work that was losing its lustre as its fashionable 90s aesthetic began to look tired, and the penny started to drop among collectors that at every other dinner party they went to they saw something on the wall that looked awfully similar to the something on their own wall, what would I do?

Long-term value in the art world depends in a certain raw way on scarcity, but is largely produced through a delicate process by which aesthetic value (determined by curators and critics) intersects with market value, determined ultimately by auction prices. One point at which these two types of value intersect is in provenance. The story behind an object – its past owners, where it has been shown, its place in the story of the artist's career, and so on – confers both types of value. A landmark show, geographically dispersed in an unprecedented way, is bound to be remembered as a significant moment in Hirst's career as a global art star. When that show is accompanied by a critical apparatus, chiefly a catalogue raisonnée (a meticulously documented list of works shown, accompanied by scholarly essays), those works become part of a canon and a magical walled garden of significance is erected around them.

As Francis Outred, Christie's European head of contemporary art, told the Economist, this catalogue "could bring reassuring clarity to the question of volume". The pharmaceutical paintings are frankly too financially valuable to too many people for their actual status (banal, mass-produced, decorative) to intrude on the consensus fiction that they are scarce and important. The owners of the 1,100 paintings not in the Gagosian show should be nervous, though. They just lost their AAA rating.

Presumably, the forthcoming Tate show will fuel the beast for a little longer. Meanwhile, even I hear rumours of auction houses actively turning away Hirsts at the moment. There are just too many. And if they all went into auction at the same time...

US National Gallery joins the free image revolution

March 16 2012

Image of US National Gallery joins the free image revolution

Picture: NGA

Rejoice! From the US National Gallery:

The National Gallery of Art announces the launch today of NGA Images, a new online resource that revolutionizes the way the public may interact with its world-class collection at This repository of digital images documenting the National Gallery of Art collection allows users to search, browse, share, and download images believed to be in the public domain, underscoring the Gallery's mission and national role in making its collection images and information available to scholars, educators, and the general public.

Designed by Gallery experts to facilitate learning, enrichment, enjoyment, and exploration, NGA Images features more than 20,000 open access digital images, up to 3,000 pixels each, available free of charge for download and use. 

 With the launch of NGA Images, the National Gallery of Art implements an open access policy for digital images of works of art that the Gallery believes to be in the public domain (those not subject to copyright protection). Under the open access policy, users may download any of these images free of charge and without seeking authorization from the Gallery for any use, commercial or non-commercial. 

Says the reader who alerted me to this good news:

Meanwhile, the Tate and NPG have their fingers in the dyke...

Friday Amusement

March 16 2012

Image of Friday Amusement

Picture: Cartoonstock

Getty acquires new Watteau discovery

March 16 2012

Image of Getty acquires new Watteau discovery

Picture: Getty Museum

Exciting news from Los Angeles, where the Getty has acquired the above picture by Watteau, The Italian Comedians. There is, however, a twist. Not everyone agrees it is by Watteau. From the LA Times:

Depending on which expert you ask, it is either a rare large canvas by one of France's greatest artists, Jean-Antoine Watteau, or the work of somebody else.

Scott Schaefer, the Getty's senior curator of paintings, said that before deciding about a month ago to buy the oil painting from a London art dealer, museum leaders sought opinions from "almost all major Watteau scholars in the world," each of whom had seen the painting in person.

The vote was 7-3 in favor of it being either solely by Watteau, who was 36 when he died in 1721, or a canvas the master had left unfinished, to be completed by another hand — possibly his student, Jean-Baptiste Pater, to whom the painting was sometimes attributed during the 20th century.

"It's so emotionally engaging that, for us, it can only be by Watteau," Schaefer said from Maastricht, the Netherlands, where he was attending the annual European Fine Art Fair.

The doubters, he said, did not say who they believed had painted the piece, which is 3 feet wide and slightly more than 4 feet tall. "But everyone, including the naysayers, thought it was a magnificent picture." 

As revealed on AHN here at the time, the picture came up at auction last year in France, where it was catalogued as 'Circle of Watteau', and with an estimate of EUR40-60,000. The picture was enticingly catalogued, with plenty of supporting evidence to suggest the picture was by Watteau, such as preparatory drawings by him. I remember thinking it looked like a very fine picture, but that other specialist dealers who knew more than I do about French painting were sure to bid on it. And lo, it made a hammer price of EUR 1 million. You can watch a video of it selling here. Although I haven't seen the picture in the flesh, I don't doubt that the Getty wouldn't have bought it unless they and others were absolutely sure it was by Watteau. So many congratulations to them, and to the London dealer who bought it. It's always good to see the art trade contributing to art history with important discoveries like this.

More details on the Getty site here.


March 16 2012

Two contrasting views. A learned reader writes:

I just wanted to relate that I was very surprised at the way the Anghiari drilling was portrayed on your site. I know there is a subtle sense of humour in some of your posts, so am putting it down to that as I don't think you are the type to get swayed by that type of thing.

And a leading UK art historian writes:

...I have just read your reaction to the dazzling Zoffany show and feel I should say how much I agree with you in every respect. In the present  mealy-mouthed and politically-driven art world we need more straight-talking commentaries like yours, if I may say so. 

Picasso's 'Child with Dove' - for sale, but you can't know the price.

March 15 2012

Image of Picasso's 'Child with Dove' - for sale, but you can't know the price.

Picture: Courtauld/Tate

A while ago I revealed that one of Picasso's most iconic early paintings was being put up for sale. The 'guide price' advertised by the Arts Council is £50m, but because the picture is under a tax liability (that is, inheritance tax has been deferred, so must be paid when the picture is sold), nobody knows how much a museum would really have to pay to buy the work. Handily, the Treasury would write the tax balance off. So I asked the Arts Council what a museum would have to raise to keep the picture in the UK, but due to taxpayer confidentiality, we can't be told. Here is ACE's response:

Picasso’s Child With A Dove is an item granted conditional exemption from capital taxation and can be purchased by a public organisation (museum, gallery or archive) at a price that is beneficial to both public purchaser and private vendor – this being known as a Private Treaty Sale. The tax remitted value will be given to any Schedule 3 museum or gallery which is seriously interested in pursuing the purchase.

A similar current case is the Manet being pursued by the Ashmolean at the moment - they have to raise £7.8m - but in fact it is worth about £28m. My guess is that the Picasso would cost a UK museum considerably more - but it might just be doable. Let's hope so.

A rare Tudor survival

March 15 2012

Image of A rare Tudor survival

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

Last night at the gallery we hosted the launch of Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb's new book, the enjoyable and thoroughly useful Visitor's Companion to Tudor England. In her speech, Suzannah mentioned some of the only remains of Henry VIII's magnificent Nonsuch Palace, a series of painted canvas panels at Loseley Park in Surrey generally accepted to have been commissioned for Nonsuch. This reminded me that some years ago we handled two of the panels (above), showing Juno and Neptune. And since they haven't been widely published, I thought I would post them here, for any Tudor art lovers among you.

The two panels had left the Loseley Collection when they were given to John Paul Getty in the 1980s. We bought them after Getty's death, when they were sold by his estate through a London auction house. The auctioneers hadn't really grasped the importance of what they had, and we were lucky enough to acquire them. Like the rest of the set at Loseley, the panels were covered in literally centuries of over-paint and dirt. We were able to remove this, so in these two panels at least, we can see them more or less as Henry VIII would have seen them all those years ago. What surprised us most about what emerged was the overall quality. The detail and colouring is quite sophisticated, especially for English 16th Century decorative painting. 

Here is my research note on the panels. It looks at the probable artist, Antonio Toto del Nunziato (1499-1554), one of many Italian itinerant painters working at the Tudor court.


The Nonsuch Panels’

Oil on Canvas; 50 by 17 ¾ inches, 127 x 45 cm


Commissioned for Henry VIII; In the possession of Sir Thomas Cawarden (c.1514–1559); His executor Sir William More (1520–1600); By descent at Loseley Park Surrey to Mr & Mrs James More-Molyneux; Until gifted to John Paul Getty c.1980, at Sutton Place, Surrey.


Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, Edward Croft-Murray, London 1962, Vol. I p.18, Vol II p.313. Marcus Binney, ‘Loseley Park’, Country Life, October 9th 1969.

These paintings are known by tradition as the ‘Nonsuch Panels’, due to their apparent origin at Nonsuch Palace, the greatest of Henry VIII’s Tudor palaces. They can be attributed with some certainty to Henry VIII’s Sergent Painter, Antonio del Nunziato, or, as he was known in England, Anthony Toto, and are part of a series of his only attributable works. They were painted c.1543-4, probably for an important royal celebration or Henry’s final wedding to Katherine Parr, and represent a rare and highly important survival of decorative art from the Tudor court. 

The present panels are two of a larger surviving set of at least a dozen others at Loseley Park in Sussex, home of the More-Molyneux family for over four hundred years. The panels came to Loseley through Henry VIII’s Keeper of the Tents and Master of the Revels [1], Sir Thomas Cawarden, and there remained until the 1980s, when the present paintings were given to John Paul Getty. All scenes in the series depict classical figures, and are of varying condition. The present pair have been the subject of recent renovation, during which numerous layers of later overpaint have been removed.

The panels were first attributed to Anthony Toto by Edward Croft-Murray in his 1962 survey Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, on the basis of a listed receipt in Toto’s hand and signed by him “for painting of hatchements, arms and badges of the King’s to be set upon his Highness’s tents and pavilions” in the Loseley archives dated May 31st 1544 [Loseley MS 1893]. This view was reaffirmed by Marcus Binney in a 1969 article for Country Life. The present works would have been typical of the temporary ‘hatchements’ painted for the interior of a royal ‘tent’, or pavilion. 

Further research by the present author has unearthed an additional, more comprehensive, description of the work carried out by Toto for Carwarden. The document, in Toto’s own hand, not only helps confirm the attribution of the present pictures, but sheds important light onto the activities of an artist in the Tudor court. It is undated, but was drawn up between 1544-47. The list of work carried out begins, “Things made and paynted for the kings Majestie by Antony Totto Serjeant Paynter [for] Sir Thomas Cardew Knyght” and goes onto detail a mass of heraldic hatchements “of the Kings Armes wt the beasts around the garter, and the Kings words [ie, motto]”, and large number of smaller “pensills paynted upon Burkeram wt the Kings badge” [Loseley MSS 1891/2]. There are also a number of painted earthenware pots listed, apparently for use in stables, suggesting that the riot of colour and decoration seen in the present paintings was employed in even the most mundane corners of the court.

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"Prado copy proves Mona Lisa was painted later"

March 15 2012

Image of "Prado copy proves Mona Lisa was painted later"

Picture: Museo Prado/Royal Collection

The latest theory spinning off from the Prado's much-hyped copy of the Mona Lisa is that it proves Leonardo finished the original much later than thought, possibly up to 1519. He began it in 1503. This is because, say specialists at the Prado, infra-red images of a part of the background in the copy relate to a drawing of rocks by Leonardo in the Royal Collection, which is dated on stylistic grounds to 1510-15. From The Art Newspaper:

When the Prado copy was being studied, infrared images revealed that a section of the original design for the rocks beneath the paint surface had been based on a drawing now in the Royal Collection. Martin Clayton, the senior curator at the Windsor print room, dates the drawing to 1510-15 on stylistic grounds. 

The Prado copy of the Mona Lisa was worked on side by side with the Louvre painting, so this connection has important implications for the dating of Leonardo’s original.

Louvre specialists went back to photographs taken of the original Mona Lisa in 2004. They realised that the design for part of the rocks on the right side in the Prado copy also appears in the underdrawing of the original, in a blurred form. This can just be made out in an emissiograph, an image made using an x-ray technique.

I must say, I don't like conclusions based on images that 'can just be made out' in x-rays. Anyway, have a look for yourself at the images, and see if you can spot the compelling similarities between the rocks in the Royal Collection drawing, and the rocks in the under-drawing in the Prado copy. No - I can't either. They look vaguely similar, that's all.

So it seems we're back to over-interpretation of the infra-red images again. Incidentally, if the Mona Lisa really was painted over a much longer period than previously believed, doesn't that make it less likely that the Prado's copy was painted alongside it? I can't quite get my head round the concept of Leonardo beginning a painting in 1503, and then having some student sit alongside him, in different countries, following him slavishly till as late as 1519. It doesn't make any sense. And who was this long-suffering student of whom we have never heard?

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